“Only” is the hardest-working little word in the English language. It does stuff that other words just dream about. It modifies nouns, it modifies verbs, it connects phrases and, depending on where you place it, it can change the entire meaning of any sentence. “Only” has so much talent; I’m sure all the other words are jealous. But does anybody sing the praises of “only?” Do you ever hear, “Good job, ‘only?’ or “Thanks, ‘only!’ You really spiced up my sentence?” Nope! Never happens! The truth is, nobody thinks about “only.” It just hangs out in the dictionary with all the other words (who don’t do half as much work, BTW) waiting for some writer who’s searching for subtlety. That’s when “only” jumps into the literary fray, without hesitation or fanfare, and gets the job done. And what a job! Here are just a few examples of what “only” can do.
It can kick-start an argument
“You phone me when you want to sleep with me.”
A legitimate statement, invitation or dismissal.
“You only phone me when you want to sleep with me.”
Suddenly, somebody’s a jerk and the war’s on.
It can convey emotion.
“He lost his friend when his dog ran away.”
Aww, that’s too bad.
“He lost his only friend when his dog ran away.”
OMG! That’s s-o-o-o-o sad!
It can turn an ordinary evening into something special.
“She was wearing an apron when he came home.”
“She was only wearing an apron when he came home.”
Pair “only” with “if” and you get a ton of regret.
“If I’d kissed her, she wouldn’t have married Malcolm.”
“If only I’d kissed her, she wouldn’t have married Malcolm.”
Lawyers love “only” because it can mitigate the circumstances.
“She robbed the bank.”
“She only robbed the bank.”
But it can also assign blame.
“When the fire started, he tried to save himself.”
What a quick-thinking individual!
“When the fire started, he only tried to save himself.”
Or it can turn a good deed into a reprimand
“She cleaned out the closet before she sat down and watched TV.”
“She only cleaned out the closet before she sat down and watched TV.”
Or it can change the meaning entirely. And this is where “only” really flexes its muscles. Take a look at this single simple sentence.
“She told him that she loved him.”
Now, sit back and see how “only” changes the meaning — seven different times.
Only she told him that she loved him.
She only told him that she loved him.
She told only him that she loved him.
She told him only that she loved him.
She told him that only she loved him.
She told him that she only loved him.
She told him that she loved only him.
I think it’s time we all take a moment out of our busy lives, pour a glass and drink a toast to “only,” the unsung hero of syntax and semantics.
“Here’s to you, ‘only!’ Keep up the good work!”